Three weeks into Pre-Service Training the trainees get to go “shadowing.” The Peace Corps trainees are sent out for three days to live with (shadow) a current Peace Corps volunteer in the field. It gives the trainee an opportunity to see what it is really like to be a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV).
The Peace Corps sent Tish and me out to stay with Chuck and Mary McGee in Selebi-Phikewi, a mining town. Chuck is a District Community Liaison (DCL), which is what I will be doing; and Mary is assigned to an non-governmental organization (NGO), as Tish will be. Also, Chuck and Mary are over 50 as we are. It is a good match.
Shadowing Chuck at Selebi-Phikewi began the Wednesday afternoon we arrived. Chuck met us, and told us that Mary, his wife was still at work. After a cab ride to the house, we put our things down, washed up a little and sat down in their nice little living room. Chuck said we could take a walk to an NGO nearby if we wanted to, and we did.
Selebi-Phikewi is a planned town, and the main employer is the BCL mine and smelting operation. The mine has been in operation for at least 40 years, and at this point is mostly run by locals. Though the HIV prevalence rate in Botswana as a whole is about 25%, in Selebi-Phikewi the HIV prevalence rate is over 30%, and in the 35-44 age group it is a shocking 56%. Some of the reasons for a high prevalence rate in Selebi-Phikewi and Botswana in general are the cultural practice of multiple concurrent partnerships (MCP), and the high number of sex workers. One thing that facilitates MCP and the use of sex workers is the fact that many Motswana work away from home, like soldiers, farmers, truck drivers, etc – and miners.
I could write a lot about MCP, but to summarize, men in Botswana often leave their family in their village while they work in the town or the cattle post – or the mine. At their work location they often have a regular sex partner nearby, and this semi-permanent relationship is called having a “small house”. Not surprisingly, the man may not be faithful outside of those relationships. If you don’t have a “small house,” or tire of the woman in it, it is estimated that there are over 3,000 sex workers in Selebi-Phikewi. HIV/AIDS is spread more rapidly when the man has multiple partners and the wife has multiple partners. Each of those partners may have multiple partners of their own. The number of connections grows geometrically, and with it the chance of catching HIV. This is one reason Botswana has the second highest HIV prevalence rate of countries in the world.
Selebi-Phikewi looks and feels different from a village. A village grows organically with families building their homes right next to each other, the growth seems random. Selebi-Phikewi, being a planned mining town has straight roads and there are even street signs on some corners. Chuck lives is in a section of Botswana government housing. It resembles an American neighborhood in a way, except for the dirt roads and the occasional cow or donkey wandering into your yard and eating your garden. As in Kanye, each house is bordered by a fence to keep that from happening. Most yards are just dirt. They come out and dig up any blade of grass that might spring up. Very few yards have grass. Chuck speculates that it is because of a fear of snakes. A snake can’t slither up undetected if there isn’t any grass (Hence the phrase, “snake in the grass”.)
Chuck, Tish and I walked the dirt roads, crossed a paved road (they call them “tarred” roads here), and took some paths to another tarred road and then to a large sports field with hundreds of Botswana children (bana) playing organized games. There we met an American missionary named Robert Grindley who runs an organization providing an opportunity for youth age 9-17 to come and play sports, and get a meal. For some of the kids it is the only good meal they will receive that day. The volunteers provide good role models for the kids, and there is a message that has a religious theme but also gives them advice on how to make good decisions that will keep them healthy in an area with a 30% HIV prevalence rate. They are working to better things here in Botswana other ways as well, including an orphanage. I was very impressed with what they were doing and look forward to helping organizations like this and others during my Peace Corps service. Here is a link to their web site. http://branchministriesafrica.org/Powerhouse_Sports.html
During the next two days I visited several other NGO’s to get an idea of the type of places a PCV might help out, including…
- Mother’s for All. Their focus is on orphans and vulnerable children (OVC). The NGO is an enterprise that provides a source of income and education for mothers. Many of these mothers are caring for orphans. Their business is built around the sale of jewelry made by creating beads out of paper. The jewelry is sold worldwide and profits go to the mothers and to the NGO which uses it to keep the business going and to fund workshops. There are “mother groups” all over Botswana who create the beads and jewelry which are then transported to Silebe-Phikwe. Here is a link to their web page: http://www.mothersforall.org/
- Silence Kills. Their focus is on HIV testing, counseling, and any other tasks identified by funding agencies, which are consistent with needs identified by the Botswana National Aids Council.
- Phikwe Theater. Their focus is on education. They write and perform plays and skits that have a message. They call it edutainment. The play could be for a business, like the play they put on to educate about mine safety for the mining company BCL; which gives them an opportunity to make money to keep themselves going. Or the play could be for educating groups about women’s rights, morality, abstinence, condom use, avoiding casual sexual relations, inter-generational sex, transactional sex, etc. A man named Molefihe Kameli is the director. When we dropped by they were preparing for a presentation they would be making at a senior secondary school.
- Good Samaritans. Their focus is on youth, and it is faith based. The director is a minister in a church. This is also an enterprise project and promotes sewing projects that raise money and teaches the involved youth a skill. It also teaches them the value of work, creates leaders, and gives them something positive to do. They produce hats and traditional clothes which are sold in the community. They also use the proceeds to fund peer counseling for couples to lay the groundwork for long term relationships (without MCP) – being faithful.
- Positive Living Helper Cell. Their focus is on testing, counseling, condom distribution, and providing food from a garden to raise money for the NGO, and to provide to the community.
Chuck and I also visited the District Aids Coordinator (DAC) office where he spends a lot of his time. I met the DAC director Lemech Myengwa who is Chuck’s counterpart. Lemech has a Masters in nursing, and was educated in Canada and South Africa.
The DAC is where the DCL spends at least 40% of their time. At the DAC office the Peace Corps Volunteer is to “build capacity”. Often the DAC employees need to learn basic computer skills, typing, or how to use software, and the Peace Corps Volunteer helps in this way. At Selebi-Phikewi, among other things, Chuck has started a newsletter and created a web page for the DAC. The idea is for the PCV to look around the DAC, talk to people, assess their needs and think of ways to help the DAC office do a better job.
However, anything a PCV does has to be sustainable. I know one DCL named Mike who was asked to create an Access database program to help his DAC office analyze their HIV data. Mike was happy to help, but insisted that a DAC employee be assigned to work with him to learn how it worked, so that after Mike’s service ended, the project could continue without him. Sustainability is fundamental to any Peace Corps work.
Our visit was a spectacular success. Not only did we get a taste for public transportation in Botswana (more on that later), and a good idea of what life as a PCV will be. We also had a nice break from formal training. One of the best parts of the trip was spending time with some truly wonderful people. Mary and Chuck were great hosts and showed us a great time. We can’t wait to get to our permanent site so we can invite them over and return the favor.
After shadowing Chuck, I was pretty excited about being a DCL. I like the idea of being in an office for a few days a week, helping where I can; and being free to go out into the community the rest of the time, lending a hand anywhere it is needed, whether it be for an active NGO, a school, a clinic, or an individual.